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Pistol Pete let his racquet do the talking.

Pistol Pete let his racquet do the talking

In an era of showmanship and volatile players, Pistol Pete was a quiet gentleman whose passion drove him to a hall of fame tennis career

PETE ALFANO, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Published: Sunday, August 12

He didn't swagger around a tennis court, torment chair umpires or bow to the crowd at the end of matches like his noted rival Andre the Entertainer.

Oddly enough, what characterized Pete Sampras's demeanour was an impassive air, and when things weren't going particularly well, a hangdog look - like a bobblehead doll with a broken spring.

But as the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving. Sizing up Sampras by his body language was as difficult as reading his serve, which never broke speed records, only the spirit of the players on the other side of the net.

In the Open era of tennis, when fans have been reared on the volatility of John McEnroe, combativeness of Jimmy Connors and showmanship of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras is a throwback - the gentleman player who was comfortable in white and still likes to say: "I let my racquet do the talking."

And did it ever. Highlighting a 15-year career are a record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, 64 tournament victories in all and a record six consecutive years of finishing as the No. 1 player in the world in probably the most competitive era in men's tennis history.

As Sampras says, you can't achieve all that and not be driven.

"There was a deep-down competitiveness that not many people saw," he said in a recent telephone interview. "I was not going to compromise to market myself or change my look or attitude. But I internalized a lot. That's the nature of being a Sampras." The fire literally burned in his belly. Sampras went two years with an undiagnosed ulcer, which made him feel nauseated whenever he ate and during stressful matches.

Almost five years after he retired at 31, with the last of his Grand Slam titles accounted for at the U.S. Open, Sampras received the sport's ultimate honour last month when he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.

And while he knew it was a foregone conclusion - "I thought my chances were good," he joked - the event provided a trip down memory lane and enabled him to put his career in perspective.

"It's been a weekend of reflection," said Sampras, who turns 36 today. "I've stopped everything and looked at my career.

"It's time to thank people who helped me get here. I never even appreciated myself during my career. You'd win and then look at the next tournament." Sampras is a student of the game. He admires the great Australian players and tried to model himself after them.

"I'm a big fan of history and I'm happy to be inducted in the Hall with (Ken) Rosewall and (Rod) Laver," he said.

Sampras is married now and the father of two boys.

When he retired after defeating Agassi for the third time in a U.S. Open final, the debate centred on whether Sampras is the greatest player of all time. Now, of course, the question is kicked around about Roger Federer of Switzerland, who is only 26 and already has won 11 Grand Slam titles. Eclipsing Sampras seems to be only a matter of time.

Sampras said he was hitting with Federer in Los Angeles recently and jokingly told him: "You could have let me enjoy this a couple of more years." "He's a great player and dominating much more than I ever did," Sampras said. "He's mellow, my type of player and personality. I don't see anyone stopping him." The argument can be made that the game was stronger at the top during the Sampras years, with players such as Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, among others. In addition to a galaxy of clay-court specialists - Gustavo Kuerten, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Sergi Bruguera, Thomas Muster, Carlos Moya - there were also dangerous serve-and-volleyers like Goran Ivanisevic, Michael Stich and Richard Krajicek.

"I think the game was stronger (at the top) in the '90s," Sampras said, "but I think the players from No. 15 on down are stronger today." It is difficult to compare athletes of different generations, thus the nature of sports is to measure success by the numbers.

But greatness is another matter; it is about defining moments. Federer had perhaps his first in the fifth set against Rafael Nadal in this year's Wimbledon final.

The irony is that the supposedly reticent Sampras had some of the more unforgettable moments in tennis history.

Remember when he broke down and cried during his match against fellow American Jim Courier at the 1995 Australian Open in Melbourne, after his coach, Tim Gullickson, was sent home ill, suffering from a malignant brain tumour that took his life the next year? Sampras won the match.

In the U.S. Open final that year, Sampras and Agassi brought the crowd to its feet with a 22-stroke rally in which each player had apparently won the point several times. Sampras did win the point, which inspired a TV commercial starring the two Nike clients.

And he capped that astounding year in December when he fought through cramps and dehydration to beat Andrei Chesnokov of Russia in a Davis Cup final singles match on clay in Moscow. Sampras collapsed and was carried from the court, but returned the next day to win the doubles match, teaming with Todd Martin. He then clinched the Cup with a dominating straight-set victory against Kafelnikov. It was a tour de force on his weakest surface.

But an even more indelible example of his determination and perseverance came in a quarterfinal match at the 1996 U.S. Open. Sampras became ill and was barely standing during the fifth-set tiebreaker against Alex Correjta of Spain, leaning on his racquet like a cane between points.

At 7-all, Sampras straightened up and smacked a second-serve ace for match point. An unhinged Corretja then double-faulted, giving Sampras a 9-7 victory in the tiebreaker, and ending the four-hour marathon. He would go on to win the Open.

But matches like these took a toll. Sampras knew he was slowing down when he lost to Marat Safin of Russia in the 2000 U.S. Open final and to Australian Lleyton Hewitt - the new Connors - in the 2001 Open final.

"They blew me off the court," said Sampras, who could not overcome having to play on consecutive days against considerably younger opponents.

But he wasn't going to quit until he broke the tie with Rosewall for Grand Slam titles. And Agassi was the perfect foil.

He is a year older than Sampras and they probably could have played each other blindfolded. Sampras won that Open final in 2002 and then spent the rest of the year contemplating his future.

"Throughout my whole career, I always had a goal," he said. "It was either to stay No. 1 or to win another major. It's what kept me going through a couple of tough years.

After that Open, it took six to eight months to see what was next. Then I realized I had nothing left to prove to myself. It was an emotional decision." There are no regrets, Sampras said. He doesn't wish he tried to win another Wimbledon, especially now with Federer breathing down his neck. He is disappointed he didn't win the French Open, but said he wouldn't trade any of his Grand Slam titles for even one at Roland Garros.

"I never relaxed and let it flow there," he said. "As the French went on, the anxiety increased. I was trying too hard to win." Now, after rarely touching a racquet in the first three years of his retirement, Sampras is back on the court, playing World Team Tennis and exhibitions. It keeps him in shape, he said, and it satisfies a need for competition. But while he is convinced he would still be a formidable opponent at Wimbledon, he has no illusions about a comeback on the men's tour.

He walked away a champion, in select company.

"I always played to win," Sampras said. "I knew when it was time to move on. I didn't want a farewell tour."

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007
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